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STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESSES: Now Enjoying Budget Surpluses, Governors Begin Giving Back to Education

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"Education is the number one economic development issue and the number one quality of life issue in our state," Barbour said.

In many of the states profiled below, large budget deficits in past years meant drastic cuts to social programs and education funding. Now, with many state economies rebounding, governors plan to repay the money that they borrowed from “rainy day” funds or education trust funds. In others, governors are using budget surpluses to replace money from education programs that were cut in lean years.

Alabama

In his state of the state address, on January 10, Alabama Governor Bob Riley (R) was quick to point out that he inherited a record $675 million budget deficit when he took office in 2003. Today, however, the state’s finances have done a complete about-face. The record budget deficit is now a record surplus, and Alabama currently enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in its history. Hoping to continue this unparalleled growth, Riley called for continued investment in education, but also asked that some of the surplus be used to cut taxes.

In his speech, Riley called for a $1 billion increase in education spending. In what he called the “largest investment ever made in our children’s future,” Riley said the increase, which would bring total education spending to $5.7 billion, would “fully fund all the learning needs requested by our K through 12 system, our community colleges, and our 4-year institutions of higher learning.” Riley’s plan would fund a pay raise for Alabama teachers of up to 5 percent and would also invest in new textbooks, teacher training, and the Alabama Reading Initiative. It would also devote $500 million to school construction and repairs.

Pointing to the $570 million surplus in the Education Trust Fund, Riley also proposed a 5-year tax-cut plan that would cost the state $233 million per year when fully implemented. In the Democratic response, Alabama House Majority Leader Ken Guin questioned the wisdom of a tax cut.

“Is there a surplus of education dollars when Georgia spends approximately $30,000 more per average elementary classroom than Alabama?” he said. “Is there a surplus of education dollars when Alabama ranks 43rd in per-student spending of the 50 states? … It would be irresponsible to spend all of the additional dollars above last year’s budget. First, much of these funds are one-time money … Second, we know in Alabama that economies are up and down and the downs are felt most in education.”

In his address, Riley seemed to anticipate the criticism. “There are those who are eager to attack this plan,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘More money should be spent on education.’ You know what? We are spending more on education than ever before. One billion dollars more, with record amounts going into our classrooms.”

Alaska

On January 10, Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski (R) listed the state’s 131,000 children in grades K 12 and 32,000 students at the University of Alaska alongside the state’s oil reserves and numerous deposits of gold, silver, and copper as evidence of the “extraordinary wealth of our great land.” He noted that students currently in middle school will become the engineers, technicians, mechanics, and other skilled laborers who will fill the gas pipeline, railroad, and other resource jobs in the near future.

To help prepare these students for successful careers in Alaska, Murkowski announced a plan to expand eligibility for the Alaska Scholars program. Under the expansion, students who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class (as opposed to the top 10 percent, as under the current program) would receive free tuition to schools in the University of Alaska system.

“The program has had a real impact on the so-called ‘brain drain’ that we experience here, by making opportunities for the best and brightest to contribute to improving our state,” Murkowski said. “Over the last 5 years we’ve seen 98 percent of our scholars who graduated here stay here in Alaska.”

In his speech, Murkowski also hailed a reduced achievement gap between native and non-native students and praised a new mentoring program already underway for beginning teachers and principals to improve student achievement and reduce teacher turnover.

Colorado

Colorado Governor Bill Owens (R) used part of his state of the state address to draw attention to what he called the “Colorado Paradox,” a condition in which the state ranks second in the United States in college degrees per capita, but lags far behind in the percentage of high school students who pursue a college education. He also expressed frustration at the number of Colorado students who need to take remedial classes after they enroll in college, and highlighted several ways that Colorado was working to address these problems.

He spoke about the College in Colorado program, which provides scholarships to low-income students who “take responsibility for preparing for college while in high school.” Owens also acknowledged the efforts of the Colorado Education Alignment Council, which is scheduled to issue a report later this year on how the state can strengthen high school standards to ensure that every Colorado student graduates with a meaningful diploma. The council, which Owens created last fall, is composed of members of the general assembly and representatives from the business community and higher and K 12 education.

In an effort to better track student outcomes, Owens said he supported legislation that would continue to use the same unique identifier number that students used during their K 12 years as they enter college. He also called for legislation that would allow K 12 and higher education systems to share student data, and proposed that children whose parents are reassigned out of state in the middle of their schooling remained eligible for in-state tuition at Colorado colleges and universities.

Georgia

As part of his state of the state address, on January 11, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (R) announced a new initiative to combat Georgia’s 40 percent dropout rate, which he called an “unacceptable waste of talent.”

“In the competitive global economy, dropouts will pay a steep price for their incomplete education,” Perdue said. “The jobs with a future are knowledge jobs. And you’ve got to have the knowledge before you get the job. Our employers also pay the price of high dropout rates when they can’t find enough skilled workers,” he said. “That is why my budget targets $23.3 million to raise Georgia’s graduation rates. This will put a completion counselor in every single high school in Georgia, with the sole purpose of working individually with students to encourage them to complete their education.”

Perdue’s budget also included several initiatives targeted at teachers and principals. For example, he announced that every teacher would receive a 4 to 7 percent raise and a “classroom gift card” worth $100 that teachers can use to purchase school supplies. Perdue also proposed a $3 million program to recruit and train “high-performance principals” to lead middle schools and high schools within the state that were in need of improvement.

“Overall, my budget devotes over 72 percent of our new revenues to education,” Perdue said. “They say the best time to plant an oak tree is 100 years ago. But the second best time to plant an oak tree is today. My friends, with this budget we are planting a forest of oaks for Georgia’s children and their future.”

Idaho

In his state of the state address, on January 9, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne (R) called for better alignment between minimum high school standards and the skills and requirements that students need to be successful in college or the workforce. He pointed to findings from the Idaho State Board of Education that recommended requiring 4 years of math and 3 years of science before students could receive their high school diplomas.

“High school curriculum must reflect what business is demanding: even more math and science,” he said. “Two years of instruction in these core areas is not enough to prepare our young people for the workforce … My budget includes the funds requested to implement high school reform. We live in a 21st-century economy. We need a 21st-century education.”

Kempthorne also proposed $27 million for higher teacher salaries, including raises for beginning teachers from $27,500 to $30,000. He also proposed $5 million to create a statewide community college network that would use technology to allow students to attend classes from remote locations via the Internet.

Kentucky

Noting that Kentucky is “consistently in the bottom 10 states” in students who receive high school diplomas, college graduates, and per capita income, Governor Ernie Fletcher (R) used part of his state of the state address to promote “Get Competitive Kentucky,” a new initiative around improving high schools and attracting quality teachers.

Under this initiative, teachers would receive a raise that would bring their salaries in line with the average of the states that surround Kentucky. The governor also called for a new compensation plan that pays teachers more when they teach in high-need subjects or teach at a low-performing school.

For high schools, Fletcher called for increased rigor in the high school curriculum and tougher graduation requirements that would ensure that high school graduates are ready for college and work. He also called for a new technology that can track student performance in real time to help teachers and administrators identify students who are struggling and get them the help they need before it’s too late.

Mississippi

While Governor Haley Barbour (R) acknowledged the powerful effects that Hurricane Katrina had on Mississippi in his January 9 state of the state address, he said that education, “even in the wake of Katrina,” is the biggest priority for the state. He called on the legislature to reconsider and pass his UpGrade Education reform proposal, which includes several initiatives to improve high schools. The proposal was passed in the state senate and house last year, but died in conference.

“Education is the number one economic development issue and the number one quality of life issue in our state,” Barbour said. “It is rightly our top priority … State spending on K 12 education is 7.2 percent, or $143 million, higher than last year. Per student spending in our public schools is more than $7,000 this year, a record amount.”

Noting that 40 percent of Mississippi students drop out of school, Barbour said his UpGrade Education proposal would focus on dropout prevention and redesigning high schools to make it possible for every student to get at least a semester of college credit during his or her senior year of high school. The proposal would also “prioritize” teacher recruitment and retention and institute a pay for performance program that would reward teachers for increases in student achievement.

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